Lineman’s Idea Leads to Microgrid in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

on December 27, 2019

Duke Energy’s Jessica Wells explores how one lineman’s idea lead to development of a Great Smoky Mountains National Park microgrid. Learn how using solar power and batteries, Duke Energy was able to remove power lines atop Mt. Sterling.

Jeff Fisher has spent more time than most in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Not as a tourist, but as a lifelong resident of North Carolina’s Haywood County and a lineworker. The park is home to some of the tallest mountains on the east coast, and Fisher has spent his 34-year career at Duke Energy hiking the challenging terrain to fix broken power poles, wires and equipment to get the lights back on as quickly and safely as possible.

With as much time as he spends walking in the woods, he has had plenty of opportunity to think about better ways to provide power. One of his ideas removed 3.5 miles of power lines and helped provide reliable power for park rangers to communicate in emergencies. Duke Energy installed a microgrid consisting of solar panels and batteries at the top of Mt. Sterling, one of the highest peaks in the park.

Fisher estimates he climbed Mt. Sterling seven times a year to make repairs to the line before the microgrid, but now he doesn’t have to repair the system at all. He visits every six months for routine maintenance with a representative from NantEnergy (formerly Fluidic Energy), a vendor that provided the microgrid system.

He sounded like a tour guide driving his white pickup truck around winding roads in the Cataloochee valley on a recent visit to the trail, pointing out places of interest like the general store where he buys local honey, an old church that’s mostly used for decoration, and, on the left, a turn in the road where you’re likely to spot elk roaming the protected lands.

At the top of the mountain, there’s a tower containing communication equipment for rangers in remote areas of the park. The radio system was powered by a 3.5-mile line, which was sufficient since it was installed in the 1960s, but, it had limitations. During high winds and heavy snow, trees fell on the line and knocked out power, which left the park without a way to communicate between ranger stations. If a hiker were to be injured during an outage, it would be impossible to dispatch emergency services.

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